Is Google ready to shift its “bubble car” research beyond the prototype stage and actually take a crack at producing real cars for a mass audience? Hiring former auto industry executive John Krafcik to lead the Google Self-Driving Car Project sounds like a step in that direction.
Google announced today that Krafcik, former President and CEO at Hyundai Motor America and before that a chief engineer at Ford, will take over leadership of its self-driving project from robotics expert Chris Urmson, who will remain in the research project as technical director.
“We still have a lot to learn about how people perceive our vehicles and how they’ll want to fit this technology into their lives and their communities,” said Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne in an email. “We have an outstanding technical leader in Chris Urmson; he has led our technology vision and execution, and he has built important bridges between Silicon Valley and the auto industry. And later this month we’re adding an outstanding business leader in John Krafcik.
“John’s combination of technical expertise and auto industry experience will be particularly valuable as we collaborate with many different partners to achieve our goal of transforming mobility for millions of people.”
An expert on lean production with a master’s in management from MIT and an engineering degree from Stanford, Krafcik left Hyundai in 2013 and headed for Silicon Valley to become president of car-shopping website TrueCar. “ I was a little surprised when he went to TrueCar,” says Navigant automotive analyst and former Ford engineer Sam Abuelsamid, who was less surprised about the Google news today. “I had speculated at the time that he might end up at Tesla.”
More than anyone currently at Google, Abuelsamid says that Krafcik “has a much better understanding of what the risks and pitfalls are of working in the auto industry … and a much better opportunity to perhaps broker some deals with one or more manufacturers at various levels of partnership.
“He understands where the manufacturers are coming from as far as their concerns, and if he can’t do those deals, he also understands what it takes to actually develop a viable commercial project, bring it to market, and manufacture it.
Abuelsamid speculated that with Krafcik, Google could end up partnering with OEM contract manufacturers like Magna Steyr or Valmet, “to have them manufacture vehicles to Google’s specifications” or possibly even “set up Google’s own in-house capability for in-house electric vehicles.”
Google's Hohne said that the Self-Driving Car Project is not at this stage becoming part of Google’s Alphabet conglomerate, a collection of side projects and acquired startups separate from the core business, “though it’s certainly a good candidate to become one in the future.”